The Thames: “L” plate

Wanderlust passes under a bridge on River Thames

Wanderlust passes under a bridge on River Thames

If you’re driving around Britain it is hard not to notice the numerous vehicles displaying a white plate with a large red “L” emblazoned in the middle. Displayed on a car, the “L-plate” signifies that the driver is a learner under instruction. On a motorcycle, the plate indicates that the rider has provisional entitlement to ride restricted motorcycles. A similar system is in place in France. In France, instead of an “L” for learner there is an “A” for apprenti. Either way, if there’s an “L” or an “A” on outside of the vehicle, you never quite know what you are going to get from the driver.

In Britain, automobiles with L-plates are mostly but not always driven timidly and cautiously. The drivers are learning both how to drive and how to navigate the challenging British roads. It’s more of a mixed bag with motorcycles. Some motorbikes with L-plates are ridden carefully. Other times the L-plate bikes are driven manically by riders who look to be auditioning for a role in the next James Bond movie.

The motivation for the L-plate requirement is completely understandable. It gives fair warning to the other motorists that they might be sharing the road with a less than capable driver. But the L-plate doesn’t tell the whole story. Some of the L-plated drivers handle their vehicles like pensioners in training; others drive like want-to-be Formula 1 pilots. You never quite know what you are going to get.

A red "L" of ignorance

A red “L” of ignorance

When you think about it, maybe the L-plate concept should extend to all aspects of life. For example, isn’t it only right that you know that your sushi chef is preparing fugu for the first time? Maybe those L-plates should be everywhere.

We are doing our part to spread the cult of the L-plate. Not long after Wanderlust was launched, we purchased a learners plate from Halfords, an auto parts store, and displayed it from the window of the wheelhouse. Though perhaps there should be, there is no L-plate requirement for skippers on the Thames. For us, the L-sign just seemed reasonable to give forewarning to the passing boats and lock keepers of our state of incompetence. After all, with Wanderlust’s size, she is quite capable of crushing small fiberglass boats like walnuts if a serious mishap occurs in a lock. Besides, we thought the L-plates were just a little funny.

Displaying the L-plate on Wanderlust did bring a few laughs. But in truth, the L-plate isn’t really needed on the Thames. The lock keepers are experienced. They can smell the fear. A good keeper quickly identifies which skippers are skilled and which are beginners. They don’t need our L-plate to tell them that. Even before we added the plate, the lock keepers treated Wanderlust as a navigational hazard. Rightfully, the keepers did their best to keep us out of harms way.


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